Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Taking a Different Tack

by John S. Mickman

This story is dedicated to my brother Jim.

At 8 AM, standing on the deck of Morning Star, our 38' sailboat, brother Jim and I watched the dark, grey clouds as they raced above San Diego Harbor. The breeze in the harbor was 15 knots, and we knew that the wind 'outside' -around Point Loma - was probably blowing a pretty steady 20 knots plus. The good news was that the forecast predicted that it wouldn't get any worse as the day wore on.

The plan was to sail up to Dana Point, 65 miles up the coast that grey March day, to meet our cousin Heidi and husband Tim for dinner. We had planned to get an earlier start, but I dropped buddy Bill off at the airport, and the drive had taken a little longer than expected. Because neither Jim nor I had ever sailed into the Dana Point harbor, we wanted to arrive before dark that evening - a pretty good poke for a sailboat, unless we had some very good sailing weather.

After readying the rigging, we fired up the engine, backed out of the mooring slip and motored out of the marina. After clearing the harbor, we hoisted the sails and began our run to Point Loma which we needed to round before we began our sail north the Dana Point. It was kind'a chilly, and a light drizzle began to spit at us as the northeast breeze continued to build.

"Hey Jimmy", I called out as we neared the point. "This early in the season I think we can cut pretty close to the point without having to worry about running into any thick kelp beds". Each summer at least one sailboat would be caught up in the thick, heavy strands of kelp and become disabled. Brother Jim agreed. "I'll stand watch-out on the bow and look for any early kelp beds. If I see it getting too thick, I'll let you know." If we cut close to the point without having to run 2 miles off shore before 'rounding Point Loma, we would save at least an hour of sailing time.

The gamble paid off as Jim guided us past many kelp beds that may have fouled our rudder and propeller. However, by the time we were able to set course north for Dana Point it was after 9 o'clock. The good news was that it was blowing a pretty steady 20 knots from the NW, just enough off of our bow to allow for good cruising.

After the sails were properly set, Jim and I reviewed our timetable. "We have 65 miles to go, and even at 6 - 7 knots, it will still take 10 hours to get to Dana Point", I said. "This is going to be close even if the wind holds." We were both squinting through the windborne drizzle at the steel grey Pacific Ocean. Although our visibility was less than 2 miles, our radar told me that there were no other small boats for at least 5 miles, and no ships within 20 miles. Jim reported the readings of both the anemometer (wind speed gauge) and the wind directional indicator with the comment that if things don't change, we should be able to make our randaveau with cousin Heidi for dinner.

With the wind off our bow by about 25 degrees, we had the sails as close hauled as they would go and we were making about 7 knots of speed. The wind had not laid down the previous night, so the seas were high - and building. Our sailboat, Morning Star was a 37.5 Hunter Legend with sloop rigging. She has a glass hull and a heavily weighted, winged keel allows us to sail in shallower water. This keel design also gives us a smoother ride in tough weather as the keels' 'wings' act as stabilizers and and takes some of the bounce out of the ride. Whenever two sailboats are going the same direction it is a race (whether you like it or not), and time and again Morning Star has proven to be a very fast boat for her size. This trip was going to be a pretty good test for Morning Star as I had never had her out for an extended day sail of this sort with this much wind and sea.

By 11 o'clock the wind was blowing a steady 25 knots, gusting to 28 or so. The seas had continued to build and were 6 -8 feet, with some cresting at well over 10 feet. Not too bad, and Morning Star was proving to be a tough little boat. Unfortunately, the wind began to climb more to the north, and with the tack we were on, we were being blown off course, closer to the coast. "Stand-by to come about Jim", I yelled through the now screaming wind. "We need to get more off shore."

After adjusting the mainsail a tad, Jim readied the foresail lines and reported that he was ready. "OK, coming about", I called as I spun the wheel to port. Morning Star responds well and we immediately began the swing to the new, more westerly tack. As the wind blew the foresail to port, Jimmy pulled 'er in with the windless winch. "Snug 'er up tight Jim. We need to sail as steep a course as possible so we don't lose any ground on this tack", I commented. "Yup, got 'er", Jim reported back as he ground the wench handle tighter and tighter. "How do you like that John?", he asked when he thought the foresail was properly set. "Looks about right Jim. Let's try that for a bit and see what the wind does."

So, off we went - in the wrong direction. Tacking a sailboat can seem to be a contrarian exercise to an inexperienced sailor because unless the wind is blowing in the correct direction, you find yourself never really steering in the direction of your destination; our current predicament. You need to 'tack' back and forth as you sail 'against the wind'.

"Jim, I'm going to call Heidi and tell her we may not make it tonight. Unless this wind changes soon, there is no way we're going to make it all the way up to Dana Point. Take the wheel.", I said. Jim took the helm as I hunched under the dodger to get some protection from the weather. I called Heidi on my cell and told her we may not make it that day, but if not, could they meet us tomorrow night? 'Sure', Heidi replied. "Either night is good for us."

Heidi is a pretty good sailor in her own right and asked how bad is was. "Well, if it doesn't get any worse, it's a pretty good sail", I reported.  "We're making good time, we just can't hold a good course to Dana Point. The boat is sailing nicely and Jim and I are having a good time. I'll call you at 2", I said to Heidi, and then hung up. "OK Jim", I said, "Heidi is still open for dinner tomorrow if we don't make it up there tonight." Jim responded, "That's great, it kind of takes the pressure off now that we don't need to get all the way up there tonight. Good deal!"

So, we sailed on as the wind climbed even more toward the north - the direction of Dana Point. As the day wore on, the wind speed steadied at about 25 knots, but the seas were really building. To maintain our 'general course' direction toward Dana Point, we tacked back and forth every 20 minutes or so to keep from getting too close to the coast or too far out to sea.

Three years ago, Jim developed geoblasoma - brain cancer. They had to open up his skull and scoop it out, and then he underwent radiation and 18 months of chemotherapy. He beat the odds by 95% and made an amazing recovery. But he needs to protect his head bone; to that end he wore a Chinese military helmet he acquired when he and his fiancée hitchhiked across China in the 1980's. It looked kind of goofy on a sailboat, but it worked- protecting his head from numerous bumps from the boom when we came about during the trip. Every day is a blessing for Jim and he lives them with gusto.

At about 1 o'clock, Jim was below deck changing into to some warmer clothes as I watched a pretty good sized 'rouge wave' racing toward us. I yelled down to Jim that it was coming, but he was way forward in his stateroom and didn't hear me. As it approached, I changed course and headed right into it so it didn't hit us across our beam. A big sea like this reminds me of a giant, taking a deep breath, and I felt the tremendous energy of the sea as we climbed to the top of the large ground swell. When we reached the top of this large sea, the bow section of Morning Star came out of the water, then came crashing down the back side of the swell. "Yee-Haw", I yelled out as we raced downhill to the fast approaching trough. We here having fun now!

Shortly after that, Jim crawled back up the latter-way to deck and commented on the increasingly rough ride. He had made a cup of tea for himself and gave me a nice hot cup of coffee. "This will warm us up a little bit", he said with a smile as we balanced our hot broths to keep them from spilling onto the deck. "Thanks Jimmy. This tastes great; just the right amount of sugar", I said.

Brother Jim is a really good guy who is always in tune with others. Of all us kids, he was definitely the best one to become a physician. He is a great listener and one that rarely forgets anything and he was honored to be chosen as one of the 'Top Docs' in the Twin Cities a few years back. His specialty is as a Pulmonologist, and unfortunately, many of his patients are very ill. It is very cool when I meet a new person who asks if I know Dr. James Mickman." I always reply, "Jimmy? You bet. He's our middle brother", I say. Then, more often than not, the new acquaintance will say something like, "Well your brother saved my wife's (brother, husband, mother, father...)  life last year." Pretty heavy. It's nice having a brother like my brother Jimmy.

End of Part I
Part II will be in next week's Newletter

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